Review: N.E.R.D, Pharrell's Avant-Rap Crew, Gets a Radical Reawakening

Our take on the wild beats and urgent politics of 'No One Ever Really Dies'

N.E.R.D's fifth album is 'No One Ever Really Dies.'

In the early '00s, while his career as a pop hitmaker was taking off, Pharrell Williams invented his side project N.E.R.D, with Chad Hugo and Shay Haley, as a dumping ground for his most off-kilter impulses – scrambling everything from funk rock to hallucinatory soul to prog-rock. If their records sounded like a hodgepodge, that wasn't a drawback. It was the whole liberating point.

The fifth N.E.R.D LP, and first since 2010's forgettable Nothing, feels urgent in a way their music never has, fitting our political moment while remaining as stylistically looped-out as ever. "If not me, then who?" Pharrell asks on the vertiginous booty-shaker "Lemon," which features a scorching rap from Rihanna. "Don't Don't Do It," one of two songs to brandish Kendrick Lamar verses, undercuts its brunch-funk keyboards and sunny bounce with lyrics about police brutality. "Secret Life of Tigers" references Guns N' Roses and right-wing parents, then springs off into a sprawling electro-funk seizure with "more space than NASA." It's refreshingly weird to watch Mr. "Happy" contort his nice-guy smile into a psychedelic scowl. But there's beauty and hope here too. The closing track, "Lifting You," is a liltingly optimistic island-tinged dub tune with Ed Sheeran on bright backing vocals – a little shot of light to help us wander out of the darkness.